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Deeply Talks: Water Outlook 2018

In the latest Deeply Talks, we talk to experts about wildfires, mudslides, infrastructure and what to keep an eye on in 2018 for water in the West.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
The Rio Grande runs through Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the local water agency is working to restore headwaters forests in the hope of protecting its water supply for future decades.Cary Herz/Liaison

In this episode of “Deeply Talks,” Tara Lohan, managing editor of Water Deeply, and a panel of experts discuss the water issues to keep an eye on in 2018. Tara is joined by Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, and Kimery Wiltshire, CEO and director of Carpe Diem West.

Recently, the Thomas Fire burned nearly 300,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara north of Los Angeles, incinerating vegetation that held the soil in place. When a major rainstorm hit the region on January 9, the water picked up dirt and debris as it rolled downhill toward the community of Montecito. The mudslide killed at least 20 people.

It’s a situation that has played out before, said Wiltshire, and it will play out again. She recalls a fire, followed by rain, in New Mexico in 2011. The resulting slide destroyed crop land and tumbled into the Rio Grande. “The Rio Grande ran black. Albuquerque and cities up and down the Rio Grande shut down their intake pipes for days,” she said. This presents not just a safety challenge but a water supply challenge, which is why there is a growing focus by water agencies and environmental groups on protecting and restoring headwaters forests.

“Throughout the West, the overall awareness of the relationship between the watershed – the headwaters forests in particular – and the downstream users is at a level that I have never seen in my entire career,” said Mount. “That’s actually pretty exciting.”

That will be especially important as climate change will cause more intense fires in the future. There has already been an increase in large wildfires in recent decades and a lengthening fire season.

“We are all on the front lines, in terms of climate change,” said Wiltshire. “And we’ll be seeing more of this in 2018.”

One of the biggest water issues that Western states will face in 2018 is infrastructure. This is particularly true in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is struggling to find money and support for California WaterFix, a plan to build new water conveyance tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There has been recent talk of scaling down the size of the project.

But time is running out if Brown hopes to secure support for any large water-infrastructure plan as 2018 will be his last year as governor. As Mount said, “If you’re gonna get something done, you’d better get it done in the next 12 months.”

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